The football world breathed a sigh of relief Monday as the Home Office announced that 19-year old Watford midfielder Alhassan Bangura would be granted a work permit and avoid deportation back to Sierra Leone.
Though a work permit looked bleak, (Bangura has never been capped by Sierra Leone, who are absent from top 70 nations of Fifa’s world rankings) the outpouring of support from both football and non-football supporters alike made his case appear even more inhumane.
Such a surge of support reminded the Home Office of the importance of finding any avenue available for Bangura, and despite the chatter that Bangura shouldn’t be treated any differently than any other asylum seeker, Bangura’s place in the sporting world did not go unnoticed. It was an independent panel composed of Home Office members and members of the football world who decided Bangura’s fate, and he had the support of Watford and the football community at large as the severity of the originating country and the happenstance of Bangura upon his possible return was decided. Bangura’s case also reminded the football world that when players come from less developed countries, they are given more than just a chance to play football, they are given a chance to reverse their fortunes.
A very brief history of UK asylum policies: Guided by the first primary legislation devoted to asylum in the UK in 1993, within the last decade, the UK has tightened up asylum acceptance, out of fear of “bogus asylum seekers” who want to take advantage of economic benefits. Notwithstanding those individuals, the UK remains mindful of the 1951 United Nations Asylum Seekers Convention, initially created to handle the displaced, post World War II. For people like Bangura, the most favorable provision is Article III of the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. If a country knowingly sends a person into such a depraved situation, it is in direction violation of Article III. Add to that widespread protest against the deportation of that individual, where imminent harm or death is on the horizon, and their case for asylum is helped even further.
Sierra Leone is still home to about 5 million, who may not appreciate seeing their country depreciated by Bangura who, though just trying to make a better life, tarnishes the image of Sierra Leone in the process. As Ade Daramy, a Soccerlens reader articulated, “What little people do know about Sierra Leone is not especially positive. They may dimly recall that there was a brutal, 10-year civil war and that Tony Blair sent British troops in to help restore the civilian government to power. It is against this background that Al Bangura and his supporters have used the situation in Sierra Leone to concoct a fantastical tale and gain sympathy. What may astound those campaigning on behalf of Bangura is that the only emotion his case has stirred amongst Sierra Leoneans is one of anger. Anger that this young man is prepared to further tarnish the name and image of his country in order to be allowed to stay here.”
Despite Daramy’s impassioned response, UN statistics are not on his side: In Sierra Leone, men on average reach their 40th birthday if lucky, and women on average live to about 42. Sierra Leone, according to the United Nations Population Fund, is one of the 49 least developed countries, and has some of the highest maternal mortality ratio (2,000 deaths per 100,000 live births) and the infant mortality rate (162 deaths per 1,000 live births).
Less capable of statistical aptitude is the country’s history of corruption and violence. The largest fear for Bangura was not that he would die young (though considering the statistics, seemed certain), but that the same group that killed his father, which prompted him to flee to begin with, would murder him. Known as the Soko, they are the heads of a wider group, the Poro, a secret society responsible for regulating the sexual, social, and political conduct of the wider population, but are often associated with voodoo or witchcraft.
As Bangura first told the Guardian when asked about his religious beliefs, Bangura, who is Muslim, stated, ” ‘I don’t know. But you can’t do these things and say you believe in God.’ When he told the Soko community he didn’t want anything to do with it, they got nasty. ‘They said, “Well, if you don’t do it, something is going to happen to you. They started threatening my life.’ Bangura thinks they might have attacked him with black magic. ‘They do stuff, you start feeling sick and lose your life.’ Voodoo stuff? ‘Yeah. That’s what they do to you. I’ve seen those things. I don’t believe in doing them, but I know they work. I used to get nightmares.’”
Not unlike what is happening in the UK and the US, Sierra Leone Muslims are facing more challenges from the Poro today. As stated in the Awareness Times back in 2007, serious tensions between Muslims and Poro Society had developed, at least those members from the Pendembu town in the Kailahun District. The Awareness Times reported that the Poro captured several Muslims and forcefully initiated them into the secret Poro society. This is in response to Islamic preaching against the practices of the Poro society, which reportedly angered Poro members. In response, the Poro adopted the policy of forceful initiation of non-members, religious leaders not exempt. Corruption is also a problem in Sierra Leone, partly in the forms of bribes and misappropriation of funds, creating an atmosphere of distrust. While this may not sound that different from most governments, it is more atrocious when the money is being taken by a population that is one of the poorest in the world.
More well known to Sierra Leone are the blood or conflict diamonds, crucial to the wars in Africa. Illicit diamond trading in Sierra Leone brought out violent combatants and about eight years of civil conflict. In 1999, negotiations, aided by the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States, between the Government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front led to the signing of the Lome Peace Accord. In signing, the parties agreed to cease the hostilities, disarm combatants, and form a government of national unity. Despite the agreement, rebel forces continued fighting well into 2001 and the consequences of the decade long war cannot be easily erased.
Daramy also maintains that the portrayal of this Sierra Leone secret society may not be accurate, “The facts are that the Soko Society is a kind of slightly fearful, traditional Sierra Leonean secret society (a kind of slightly less benign Freemasons, if you will). Whilst it is true that a son may be expected to follow his father into the society, there is absolutely no compulsion. Most of the people from Bangura’s tribe are not members and no one has threatened them with death. If what he alleges is true, his case would be the first one of its kind in history!”
Historically speaking, the Poro society seems to have appeared in the late 19th century to oppose colonialists and boycott European trade. Known as a Sierra Leone hero, Bai Sherbro Kpana Lewis was a member of the Poro at that time, and the society was then known for acting as a judiciary, police, political, and economical infrastructure. Still, according to Bangura, this is not the case any longer.
Bangura related his experiences to the Guardian with the following, “Bangura was told that, as the son of a chief, he was next in line to lead. ‘They came out of the village and gave my mum a message, saying, ‘Your son’s dad used to be the head of this society, so we have to make sure your son will follow as head.’ My mum knew about the group, but she didn’t want me to be in it. They’re not good things that they’re doing; they cut off bits of their body. She said, ‘I don’t want you to be with these people, this is not part of your life.'”
Bangura’s case is thus instructive, an example of the conflict between personal perceptions and experiences and other, perhaps more objective data. While no one would call Bangura a bogus asylum seeker, these differences speak loudly. Still, Bangura’s past is remarkable, and makes a strong case. In that same Guardian article, Frances Lynn, a Watford fan and a member of the Supporters Trust, emphasized that Bangura’s past and his work with the club made a solid case for him to stay. “It’s shocking. Most of us don’t know people who have experienced things like this. Then you hear of this young boy who plays for your football club who always has a beaming smile, and it brings it home that the things you hear are not just stories, they happen to people in your community.”
As stated in the International Journal of Refugee Law, “People who claim to be refugees will generally prove their entitlement to that status and be accorded their rights as refugees almost immediately.” Proving an entitlement to be considered a refugee is thus a delicate art. In a motion asking for the Home Secretary to review Bangura’s case, it was his contribution to sport that stood out most. “This [deportation] ignores the valuable contribution he’s made to his community through playing for Watford. We express alarm that Mr. Bangura is being forced to return.”
Despite acknowledging these differences in opinion, Daramy joined in the chorus of supporters wanting Bangura to remain in the UK, and minus finding Bangura in a bald faced lie, it was nearly impossible not to. Bangura was lucky to have the support of the world and the football community at large. As stated by Graham Simpson, Watford’s chairman, “As a club, we are very happy with the news but, most of all, we are delighted for Al and his family. We always knew we had a strong case and, despite our setbacks, we knew we had to fight for what we believed to be right for this young man. I would like to personally thank all the Watford fans whose backing of Al has been so crucial to moving this forward and securing his immediate future in the United Kingdom.”